فصل 17

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فصل 17

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Chapter Seventeen

BUT FIRST, TO AULIS. AULIS, A JUTTING FINGER OF LAND with enough shoreline to beach all our ships at once. Agamemnon had wanted his mighty force assembled in a single place before it sailed. A symbol perhaps: the visible power of Greece Offended.

After five days churning through the rough waters of the Euboean coast, we came around the last hitch of the winding straight, and Aulis was there. It appeared all at once, as if a veil had been yanked off: shoreline thick with vessels in every size and color and shape, its beach covered in a shifting carpet of thousands upon thousands of men. Beyond them the canvas tops of tents stretched out to the horizon, bright pennants marking the kings’ pavilions. Our men strove at their oars, guiding us towards the last empty place on the crowded shore—big enough for our whole fleet. Anchors dropped from fifty sterns.

Horns blew. The Myrmidons from the other ships were already wading ashore. They stood now at the water’s edge, surrounding us, white tunics billowing. At a signal we could not see they began to chant their prince’s name, twenty-five hundred men speaking as one. A-chil-les! All along the shore, heads turned—Spartans, Argives, Mycenaeans, and all the rest. The news went rippling through them, passing one to another. Achilles is here.

As the sailors lowered the gangway we watched them gather, kings and conscripts both. I could not see the princely faces from the distance, but I recognized the pennants that their squires carried before them: the yellow banner of Odysseus, the blue of Diomedes, and then the brightest, the biggest—a lion on purple, the symbol of Agamemnon and Mycenae.

Achilles looked to me, drew in a breath; the screaming crowd at Phthia was nothing compared to this. But he was ready. I saw it in the way he lifted his chest, in the fierce green of his eyes. He walked to the gangway and stood at its top. The Myrmidons kept up their shouts, and they were not alone now; others in the crowd had joined them. A broad-chested Myrmidon captain cupped his hands around his mouth. “Prince Achilles, son of King Peleus and the goddess Thetis. Aristos Achaion!” As if in answer, the air changed. Bright sunlight broke and poured over Achilles, went rolling down his hair and back and skin, turning him to gold. He seemed suddenly larger, and his tunic, wrinkled from travel, straightened until it shone white and clean as a sail. His hair caught the light like buoyant flame.

Gasps amongst the men; new cheers burst forth. Thetis, I thought. It could be no one else. She was pulling his divinity forth, mantling it like cream on every inch of his skin. Helping her son make the most of his dearly bought fame.

I could see the tug of a smile at the corner of his mouth. He was enjoying it, licking the crowd’s worship off his lips. He did not know, he told me later, what was happening. But he did not question it; it did not seem strange to him.

A pathway had been left open for him, straight through the crowd’s heart to where the kings gathered. Each arriving prince was to present himself before his peers and new commander; now it was Achilles’ turn. He strode down the plank and past the jostling ranks of men, stopping perhaps ten feet from the kings. I was a few paces farther behind.

Agamemnon was waiting for us. His nose was curved and sharp like an eagle’s beak, and his eyes glittered with a greedy intelligence. He was solid and broad across his chest, firmly planted in his feet. He looked seasoned, but also worn—older than the forty years we knew him to be. At his right side, a place of honor, stood Odysseus and Diomedes. On his left was his brother, Menelaus— king of Sparta, cause of war. The vivid red hair that I remembered from Tyndareus’ hall was touched now with threading gray. Like his brother he was tall and square, his shoulders strong as a yoke-ox. His family’s dark eyes and curving nose seemed softer on him, more temperate. His face was smile-lined and handsome where his brother’s was not.

The only other king that I could identify with any surety was Nestor—the old man, chin barely covered by a sparse white beard, eyes sharp in his age-whittled face. He was the oldest man living, it was rumored, the canny survivor of a thousand scandals and battles and coups. He ruled the sandy strip of Pylos, whose throne he still clutched stubbornly, disappointing dozens of sons who grew old and then older, even as he bred new ones from his famed and well-worn loins. It was two of these sons who held his arms steady now, shouldering other kings aside for a place at the front. As he watched us his mouth hung open, breath puffing his threadbare beard with excitement. He loved a commotion.

Agamemnon stepped forward. He opened his hands in a gesture of welcome and stood regally expectant, waiting for the bows, obeisance, and oaths of loyalty he was owed. It was Achilles’ place to kneel and offer them.

He did not kneel. He did not call out a greeting to the great king, or incline his head or offer a gift. He did nothing but stand straight, chin proudly lifted, before them all.

Agamemnon’s jaw tightened; he looked silly like that, with his arms out, and he knew it. My gaze caught on Odysseus and Diomedes; their eyes were sending sharp messages. Around us the uneasy silence spread. Men exchanged glances.

My hands clutched each other behind my back as I watched Achilles and the game he played. His face seemed cut from stone as he stared his warning at the king of Mycenae—You do not command me. The silence went on and on, painful and breathless, like a singer overreaching to finish a phrase.

Then, just as Odysseus moved forward to intervene, Achilles spoke. “I am Achilles, son of Peleus, god-born, best of the Greeks,” he said. “I have come to bring you victory.” A second of startled silence, then the men roared their approval. Pride became us—heroes were never modest.

Agamemnon’s eyes went flat. And then Odysseus was there, his hand hard on Achilles’ shoulder, wrinkling the fabric as his voice smoothed the air.

“Agamemnon, Lord of Men, we have brought the prince Achilles to pledge his allegiance to you.” His look warned Achilles— it is not too late. But Achilles simply smiled and stepped forward so that Odysseus’ hand fell off him.

“I come freely to offer my aid to your cause,” he said loudly. Then turning to the crowd around him, “I am honored to fight with so many noble warriors of our kingdoms.”

Another cheer, loud and long, taking what felt like minutes to die. Finally, from the deep crag of his face, Agamemnon spoke, with patience that had been hard won, hard practiced.

“Indeed, I have the finest army in the world. And I welcome you to it, young prince of Phthia.” His smile cut sharply. “It is a pity you were so slow to come.”

There was implication here, but Achilles had no chance to answer. Agamemnon was already speaking again, his voice lifted over us all: “Men of Greece, we have delayed long enough. We leave for Troy tomorrow. Repair to your camps and make yourselves ready.” Then he turned with finality and strode up the beach.

The kings of Agamemnon’s innermost circle followed him, dispersing back to their ships—Odysseus, Diomedes, Nestor, Menelaus, more. But others lingered to meet the new hero: Thessalian Eurypylus and Antilochus of Pylos, Meriones of Crete and the physician Podalerius. Men drawn here for glory or bound by their oath, from every far-flung crag of our countries. Many had been here for months, waiting as the rest of the army straggled together. After such tedium, they said, looking slyly at Achilles, they welcomed any harmless entertainment. Particularly at the expense of— “Prince Achilles,” interrupted Phoinix. “Please excuse my intrusion. I thought you would wish to know that your camp is being prepared.” His voice was stiff with disapproval; but here, in front of the others, he would not chide.

“Thank you, worthy Phoinix,” Achilles said. “If you’ll pardon us—?”

Yes, yes, of course they would. They’d come by later, or tomorrow. They’d bring their best wine and we’d broach it together. Achilles clasped hands with them, promised it would be so.

IN CAMP, Myrmidons streamed around us hefting baggage and food, poles and canvas. A man in livery approached and bowed— one of Menelaus’ heralds. His king could not come in person, he regretted, but had sent the herald here in his place to welcome us. Achilles and I exchanged a glance. This was clever diplomacy— we had not made a friend in his brother, so Menelaus did not come himself. Yet, some welcome was due to the best of the Greeks. “A man who plays both sides of the fence,” I whispered to Achilles.

“A man who cannot afford to offend me if he wants his wife returned,” he whispered back.

Would we accept a tour? the herald asked. Yes, we said, in our best princely manner. We would.

The main encampment was a dizzying chaos, a bedlam of motion— the constant fluttering of pennants, laundry on lines, tent walls, the hurrying bodies of thousands and thousands of men. Beyond this was the river, with its old watermark from when the armies had first arrived, a foot higher on the bank. Then the marketplace center, the agora, with its altar and makeshift podium. Last, the latrines—long, open ditches, busy with men.

Wherever we went, we were observed. I watched Achilles closely, waiting to see if Thetis would again make his hair brighter or his muscles bigger. If she did, I did not notice; all the grace I saw then was his own: simple, unadorned, glorious. He waved to the men who stared at him; he smiled and greeted them as he passed. I heard the words, whispered from behind beards and broken teeth and callused hands: Aristos Achaion. Was he as Odysseus and Diomedes had promised? Did they believe those slender limbs could hold against an army of Trojans? Could a boy of sixteen really be our greatest warrior? And everywhere, as I watched the questions, I saw also the answers. Yes, they nodded to each other, yes, yes.

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